To th gr at alphab t soup in th sky

This post was originally going to be titled “Writing Through the Dark” and address the way our novels can help us get through tough times in our “real lives” (why do I always feel the need to put that phrase in quotes?  Because I have none?). But, like a typical episode of The Simpsons, it had to begin somewhere else and eventually journey back to that target topic.

Bear with me while I prologue:

I reached a writing milestone this weekend. Not a page number or a word count–not anything created, but rather something destroyed.

The painted “E” on my laptop is obliterated, leaving only a clean black square where the English language’s most popular letter resided for fourteen months under my tapping fingers. What was once a QWERTY keyboard is now a QW RTY keyboard.

Other endangered letters: N, M, D, and eventually R. (Why not A, S, or T, you wonder, remembering those favorites of Hangman players and Wheel of Fortune contestants? Reason: When I hit the S, my ring finger is short enough that its pad hits the key rather than the nail.)

Anyway, it reminded me of Misery by Stephen King. The protagonist, novelist Paul Sheldon, is trapped in the home of one of his psychotic fans, Annie Wilkes, who coerces him into resurrecting the heroine of a series beloved by readers and despised by Paul himself. Throughout the novel, various keys fall off the decrepit typewriter she bought him, which means that he has to fill in the missing letters by hand on the manuscript. We know he’s hit rock bottom when the E key falls off (the fact that his left foot had been axed was another clue).

Misery, along with being a great character study and a riveting drama, is an outstanding illustration of the redemptive power of writing. Paul has no hope of survival, his consciousness alternates between agony and oblivion, but he has his work. The power of his creativity and the response it evokes in his reader ultimately saves both his physical and emotional life.

Okay, detour over.

Friday will mark the one-year anniversary of my best friend’s death.  (She was a cat–in this world, anyway–if that makes a difference.)  In that time I wrote and rewrote one novel, and rewrote another novel, mostly sorta kinda generally meeting my deadlines, all the while feeling like I was just going through the motions. I didn’t have time to stop and mourn.

It wasn’t until I began a new project this summer, one that in its very subject matter (ghosts) let me look the grief and pain right in the face, that I began to feel like myself again.

Has writing ever been your salvation or refuge? Or in tough times does it become one more source of stress?  Or both?

What about fiction as therapy, whether as a writer or a reader?  Do you ever avoid topics close to your heart to avoid revealing too much about yourself to the world?  Do you ever get reader mail saying how your book helped them deal with a crisis?  (That’s when it’s all really worth it.)

Have a good week, and try not to get kidnapped by axe-wielding fans.

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  1. 1. Kelly McCullough

    Very much so. I had a couple of really miserable years in terms of horrendous family stresses that happened to overlap the sale and publication of my first two books. There were a lot of days where it felt like the only place I could exert control was on the page. I ended up writing two books a year for several years, something I’d never done before and pace that I’m hoping to sustain and improve on now that things have gotten much better.

  2. 2. Jeri Smith-Ready

    Kelly, I think you get to the heart of the issue here–we have no control over so much of what happens in our lives, so the fictional world becomes a place where stuff makes sense. It also applies to the writing business in general–e.g., we can’t control how many copies each store orders of our books, but we can try to make it the best book possible.

    Glad things have gotten better for you!

  3. 3. Anna the Piper

    I have a weird juggling act going on between writing being therapy, and writing being additional stress in stressy times. It seems to depend on what’s going on in my life, and what the current portion of the major work in progress is. If I’m too stressed, I can’t write. Of course, then I get stressed about not writing. Mmm, vicious circle!

    I’ve found lately though that in times like this, the writing that serves better as therapy is the stuff I’m writing purely for my own amusement, rather than the stuff I’m writing with intent to publish. Maybe because the latter is starting to feel like the Stuff I Have to Take Seriously. Which makes it feel more like Work. ;)

    Though when I’ve got my Reader hat on, oh my yes, books are absolutely therapy. Especially if they hit that sweet spot between “fluffy escapism” and “quality writing”.

  4. 4. Jeri Smith-Ready

    If I’m too stressed, I can’t write. Of course, then I get stressed about not writing. Mmm, vicious circle!

    Absolutely. I find that I’m only happy when I’ve written. You’d think I would make an effort to do it more often! :-)

    And I agree–writing a book strictly for oneself is immensely fun and freeing.

  5. 5. Mindy Klasky

    My writing used to be more therapeutic, before I was published. I worked out a lot of my single-girl angst, and a lot of my friend-left-behind-while-everyone-else-goes-out angst that way. Now, I figure no one wants to read that garbage…

    I have, though, used the rigor of writing – the need to set a schedule – to work my way out of mini-depressions.

    The keys that disappear on my keyboard are the M, N, E, O, and T. I was assured this wouldn’t happen with an Apple keyboard, but They were wrong…

  6. 6. Jeri Smith-Ready

    I was assured this wouldn’t happen with an Apple keyboard, but They were wrong…

    Ha! I knew Apple wasn’t infallible. This is like finding out exercise is bad for you (I’m still waiting and praying for that one).

  7. 7. S Megan Payne

    I know what you mean. I’ve found writing poetry makes sense for me out of the craziest worst times in my life. Sometimes, this means writing song lyrics (none of which will ever be published), because I’m oriented toward the music when I’m trying to cope.

    But if I’m too stressed, fiction writing takes a serious dive. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll ever get it back. Then one morning it announces itself, and I ride the wave right out of my depression.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Writing isn’t therapeutic for me at all – it’s like pulling teeth.

    As for losing a keyboard’s ‘Es’, I don’t mind that so much as I mind when the ‘E’ key gets stuck. That’s when I need a new laptop.

  9. 9. David B. Coe

    Writing got me through the deaths of my parents, the construction of our house, the near-premature birth of our second daughter after Nancy was in a car wreck. And then, in turn, all of those experiences, and the emotions that came with them, became fodder for later writing. That’s a cycle (not so vicious) that I can live with.

  10. 10. Jeri Smith-Ready

    S.C., I’ve found that losing the paint off the keys has the nice side effect of rendering other people (certain people who can’t touch-type) unable to use my laptop. ;-)

    David, that’s great that writing was such an emotional anchor for you. The fertilizer function is a nice bonus. They always say that it’s hard to write about life without living it.

  11. 11. Chris Coen

    I’ve worn through the E, S, D, K, L, C, N, M and , keys twice on my dayjob Dell keyboard, and in that time have only lost the E on my Mac keyboard…and not for lack of use. *g*

    I had stopped writing for about ten years while trying to be Career Woman. When I got laid off, I finally turned first to reading those older efforts, and then to writing new material to dig myself out of depression. Worked, too.

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